King Cotton is dead, long live King Gas

I have a post up at The National Interest, arguing that embargoes imposed by commodity export countries in pursuit of geopolitical objectives rarely, if ever, work. Opening paras:

At the beginning of the Civil War, the leaders of the South were, as is normal at the outset of war, confident that their superior military prowess would yield a rapid victory. But the Confederates had another reason for confidence: their possession of a near-monopoly in the market for the most important commodity of the day: cotton.

Like oil in the twentieth century, cotton was vital to the industrial economies of the nineteenth, and particularly that of Britain, the preeminent naval and military power of the day. And the Southern United States was the world’s dominant producer of cotton, accounting for 77 percent of British imports in the 1850s.

Rhetoric about ‘King Cotton’ matched the most hyperbolic claims about ‘energy superpowers’ to be heard today. In 1858, South Carolina senator James Hammond said ‘old England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her…. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.’

The most immediate application, obviously, is to Russia and gas. Feel free to discuss the broader issues raised by the Ukraine crisis.

32 thoughts on “King Cotton is dead, long live King Gas

  1. @iain
    Link fixed I hope. On your substantive concern, I agree. These events are very alarming for the future of the world.

  2. The flakiness of Russian gas supply is given as a reason Germany has built several new coal fired power stations in the last few years. This article shows that Russia does indeed produce a substantial fraction of world natural gas with Norway and the Netherlands way down the list as potential suppliers to the EU and Nordic countries. Maybe Russia is holding the cards. World peak gas at present consumption is expected around 2030 which is also when eastern Australia is expected to not just peak but run out. It has been suggested that world population is a third larger than otherwise due to natural gas feedstock for urea fertiliser.

  3. AsiaTimes looks at the way the Euro bloc and their attemps to sanction Russia are doomed to failure by their reliance on Russian gas. and oil ..anyway sanctions may work against a small state but are a farce against a superpower
    and the Germans for one…depend on the Russian markets for almost 1/3 of their exports

    Obam may be undermined by a gas cloud


    the comment from a Euro business site re Russian gas and the coming(very soon) crisis in Ukraine over the payment of $1.8 billion dollars owing to Russia for an unpaid gas bill…along with the loss of a 1/3 discount on gas from Russia …by the Ukraine

    a cold dark time awaits…and they hope the Euros will pay…who …The Greeks … The UK … the Spanish ?? I don’t think so

  5. So far it is the West imposing sanctions and threatening embargoes. I have not seen any evidence of Russia threatening retaliatory embargoes. I may have missed some evidence so I am happy to have it pointed out.

    J.Q’s. analysis is both right and wrong. It depends what assumptions and parameters one feeds into such an analysis. Historically speaking, his analysis is mostly correct except that the very real impacts of the 1973 oil embargo are somewhat rationalised away by J.Q. by conflating them with other economic issues. The fact that the analysis is largely historically correct does not necessarily mean such analysis will be correct in the future. Simple extrapolation of past trends are fraught with error especially when applied to an exponential growth system coming up against the limits to growth.

    From the beginning of the industrial revolution, manufacturing nations came to possess the advantage over mere commodity producing nations. England and later Japan became good examples of this trend. The ability to import and transform commodities developed economic and thence military power. However, nations which possessed both vast commodity producing reserves and developed their manufacturing capacity become the most powerful. The USA is the pre-eminent example of this. Imperial Russia/Soviet Union/Russian Federation is the “poor man’s” example of the same thing. Like the USA it possessed and posseses vast natural resource reserves.

    However history and internal politics have not been benign to Russia. Russia did the heavy lifting of defeating France’s empire (1812-1813) and then Germany’s empire (1941-1945) and bore the brunt of the damage the second time while many of its distant overseas allies got off relatively lightly in infrastructure damage terms. Russia was not assisted to redevelop after WW2. Rather it was opposed and contained. But Russia took a large slice of Eastern Europe at that time as a buffer and economic tributary zone.

    To sum up, any calculation which states or purports to imply that commodities and raw materials are irrelevant to the economic and military power equation is an egregious fallacy. Such a fallacy assumes (1) endless abundance and (2) they can always be imported if not available domestically. These two assumptions cannot always and forever be true. Having reached the limits to growth we are at the end of “endless abundance”. Imports can be restricted by global shortages and by war, blockades, embargoes and sanctions. Import replacement is only possible if other sources are available. There is a difference between short conflict and protracted conflict too. Short conflicts can be conducted from stockpiles. Protracted conflict requires sustained production and re-supply.

    Short term, the EU can sustain a trade war with Russia and Russia will suffer more. Long term, the EU, which has substantially run out of energy and minerals, cannot continue in its present form without large scale imports. These imports will dwindle over time as other nations withhold key resources to meet domestic demand. In a world of constrained resources, nations will ban exports to meet domestic demand. Those nations / zones not excessively exceeding their biocapacity and resource capacity footprint will fare best. In future “fare best” will mean decline slower which will equate to a relative increase in power.

    North America (USA/Canada) and Russia are best placed to survive in this kind of world, possessing “primary autarkic resilience”, the ability to supply all or almost all of their own needs from their own land mass. The EU is badly placed being an exhausted continent in many respects. Geostrategically, Russia can accelerate the EU’s long term decline and Russia can hoard resources for the future by NOT trading with the EU. If the EU imposes sanctions, Russia can say “bring it on”. After all, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. It’s bad manners!”

  6. @Ikonoclast
    “Such a fallacy assumes (1) endless abundance and (2) they can always be imported if not available domestically.” Such assumptions are only necessary if you think its credible that economic conflict will extend into the long term. In the short term, the argument is simply that if somewhere is the dominant exporter of a commodity, the economy tends to gear itself around that and the cost of sanctions bites the supplier harder than the buyer.

    As you correctly point out, in the short term Russia is the clear loser of such economic conflict, and the internal strife this would generate is precisely what Putin is most afraid of. If the Russian government was largely responsive and accountable to its citizens then there would be little question that the EU holds all the cards. What makes this situation dangerous is that it isn’t clear just how unaccountable Putin is willing to go. But history seems to suggest that he brings on this kind of economic woe at his own peril.

  7. @Nathan

    But as I have argued here and elsewhere, we are at the limits to growth now. The EU’s deep-seated malaise is not just about inappropriate austerity policies. More fundamentally, it is about the initial impacts of resource shortages impacting first (now) through higher prices and very soon through absolute shortages induced by resource scarcity. So the EU is in no position to fight a trade or resources war with Russia. Russia holds most of the cards and the EU very few.

    In relation to internal strife in Russia. It can be managed whilst Russia can feed and fuel itself. And it can do that for a long time (50 years or more) on its own resources. The EU would last a few short years at best on its own primary resources. Countries or regions that can’t feed or fuel themselves break down into chaos very quickly: see Libya and Syria.

  8. It is really disturbing that there are war games debated all around world as something natural. It tells about our times when elites are diverging our interest from economic problems into “war and games”.

    But let me jump in.
    Cotton is one thing while bread and energy has completely other significance. Remember oil in Germany in WWII and Caucas fields, also as Ikonoclast mentions 70’s. Oil and gas as primary commodity is much more important then cotton, which other Northern industry owerwhlmed importance of single commodity in the south.

    This Ukraine matter is also about completely another game. There are negotiations about TIPP, transatlantic trade negotiations with corporate rights overwhelm state rights just as with TPP, transpacific partnership. Estonia, Poland and Latvia are already alarmingly urging USA to provide them with shale gas, but since they are not the part of free trade agreements, USA is not exporting gas to them. There are wast storage facilities for gas being built right now in Poland and it is schedulled to be finished by the end of the year, there are also more storage being built in Croatia.

    This fight over gas is used to push free trade agreements and make pass things that otherwise would not get through. Like GMO in EU…
    Russia will be a clear winner if Putin shows patience and is able to instill it in russia’s oligarchs.
    Energy is lifeline, cotton is not.

  9. Ikonoclast, the EU-27 produces about 280 million tonnes of grain a year. That’s enough to feed roughly 3 times the EU’s population. Russia is roughly managing to produce 80+ million tonnes of grain a year for 144 million people which works out to just a little less grain per capita than the EU.

  10. @Ronald Brak

    The picture is a little more complicated than that.

    “About 15% of the EU’s wheat crop is exported annually, while large quantities of oilseeds, animal feedstuffs and rice are imported.” – EC , Agriculture and Rural Development.

    “Nearly two-thirds of the EU’s cereals are used for animal feed, with around one-third for human consumption. Only 3% is used for biofuels.” – EC , Agriculture and Rural Development.

    Europe imports about 1/3 of its rice consumption.

    So, perhaps the EUs grain consumption could feed three times Europe’s population if Europe gave up meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese and another 1 billion gave up those products as well. This is not impossible of course. We could all go mostly vegetarian.

    But the big question is what fuel is used to support this agriculture? The answer is hydrocarbons. No hydrocarbon fuels equals much less food for Europe. Since Europe has few and dwindling hydrocarbon resources and since these are running out worldwide, Europe is in a bind. Why do you think the Mediterranean periphery is collapsing? In addition, Europe’s coal production is poor (semi-exhausted) and Europe produces few of the key minerals required for modern economies.

    Stationary (electrical) energy can be provided by wind and solar power if it is scalable. (Shortages of key metals, lithium, neodymium etc., for an electrical economy might be the problem here.) Hydrocarbons for transport, construction and agriculture are even more difficult to replace. There is no clear replacement yet and no sign of the world economy re-tooling on anywhere near an adequate scale for an oil-free future.

  11. Let’s see… Mediterranean periphery collapsing… Greek life expectancy in 2002 was 79.0 years and life expectany ten years later in 2012 was 80.8 years. That doesn’t seem like much of a collapse. Wait a minute… Life expectancy in 2011 was 80.9 years! Oh my god! That’s 0.1 year drop in life expectancy! You’re right! They’re dropping like flies! Just like they did in 2007, 1992, 1987, 1985, 1983, 1980, 1975, 1972, 1967, 1964, and 1962!

  12. @Ronald Brak

    Greece went into recession in 2008, like many other countries. However, Greece has never come out of it. In fact, Greece is now in an economic place worse than the Great Depression. After five years of the Great Depression, one out of five workers in the hard hit United States was unemployed. Their economy was nearly 20 percent smaller in 1934 than it had been in 1929. The decline in the Greek Economy from 2007 to 2012 was 20.1%. Unemployment in December 2012 was 26.4%. Unemployment in December 2013 was 27.5%.

    So, I guess if you think a performance worse then the Great Depression is fine, then I guess everything is rosy in Greece. The Greek economy in 2013 measured by GDP was smaller than their economy in 2007.

    Yes, Greece’s economy is collapsing. Suicides have risen sharply in Greece. Greek statistics agency ELSTAT shows a dramatic rise in suicide rates since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008. Between 2007 and 2011 the suicide rate rose by 43 percent. The year 2011 was marked by the highest suicide levels in 50 years, with 477 deaths. Public health is collapsing. It takes a while but the figures will work through to mortality rates.

    Greece’s energy use per capita first flattened from 2005 and then starting plummeting from 2008. It’s now below 1998 useage per capita. There is a complex feed-back loop between GDP and energy use per capita. However, increasing energy prices mean Greece cannot afford imports to maintain the per capita use it once had. Even if austerity was removed Greece would struggle to grow again unless aid allowed it to take oil use from some other nation (which in turn would suffer). The world has entered the era where resource shortages are constraining economic activity.

  13. @Ikonoclast

    Today I’ve been keeping an eye on the anti-austerity marches & protests in Madrid. Tens of thousands of protesters. Violence, mostly caused by the police laying into the crowd and the crowd retaliating – 101 injured, 67 of those were police. It’s ugly.

    Spain has about 50,000 forced evictions per year at present – after peaking at 500 per day in 2012. Unemployment is 26%. Suicides are at least 8 a day.

  14. @Ikonoclast
    My main point is not that you are significantly overestimating the fragility of the EU but underestimating that of Russia. In short, although growth limits are becoming increasingly important, we’re at the point now where economic shocks, like the bursting of artificial bubbles a la the GFC or a sudden change in trade conditions, can put an economy into a tailspin much faster than any resource constraint. There wasn’t really any resource constraints that should have driven Russian into large scale poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union but it happened anyway. And I think you underestimate the powder keg of pre-existing pent up political unrest. It seems to me that Russia is somewhat comparable to Egypt, in that there’s quite a groundswell of political unrest, and the sudden onset of recession could well be enough to set off some serious protest movements. Having said that, Putin et al are probably a lot more powerful and ruthless than Mubarak et al.

  15. Sorry Ikonoclast, by collapsing I thought you might mean something that would show up in life expectancy figures. By the way, you mentioned Greece’s energy use per capita plummeting since 2008. You may want to check just what’s going on there as that’s when they started installing solar PV in a big way. They now have about 37% more solar per capita than Australia does. Australia’s energy use has been declining too and obviously that’s not due to a depression as we were smart enough to decide not to have one.

  16. Wintrobe pointed out that tinpot and tyrannical autocrats react in opposite ways to sanctions.

    If sanctions fail, why are they imposed?

  17. What I find interesting (and this is a caution for all of us, even me) is that each “analyst” of the world situation tends to obsess over their one big idée fixe. The event analysed in the light of this one idée fixe is THE ONE event that is going to crash the US or the World economy.

    1. Limits to Growthers (like me) see only resource limits.
    2. Energy “hyperventilators” see only energy limits.
    3. Peak oilers see only oil limits (even saying to “pish” to other energy limits).
    4. Simplistic Keynesians see only Austerity (pro-cyclical policy) being at fault.
    5. MMT-ers see only unwillingness to print enough fiat currency as the problem.
    6. Gold bugs see only the use of paper money (not bullion) as the problem.
    7. Marxists say just fix the ownership of production problem and everything will be peachy.

    And so on… you get the picture.

    Considering these seven positions above, one might be tempted to think hmmm fix the one real fundamental master-problem and we can save the whole system. But that aint how it is. We have so many problems now dynamically reinforcing each other that there is no simple solution. Of course, there never was a simple solution to all the problems plagueing societies and civilizations. The difference is that the problems are now of biosphere scale. Once when a civilization wrecked itself or was wrecked, another could arise later, either there or somewhere else. Now, civilization wrecks itself (as it most likely) by wrecking the entire biosphere. No more civilizations will arise after that.

  18. Dmitry Orlov understands the Ukraine situation and pulls no punches about how idiotic the US leadership is.

  19. @Ikonoclast
    8. Circuitists would say just raise marginal tax back to 90%.

    And i am with cirquitists 🙂
    Most of the management of capitalizm flaws can be done with 90% tax.
    It drastically reduces bribes to politicians, reduces incentives to destroy unions as partial democracy at work.

    Since this confiscatory tax is also reducing corruption of politicians they would be able to solve other problems like energy, pollution and resource limits.
    It is the corruption of politicians by money sign that is preventing solutions to be discussed, let alone applyed.
    90% tax cuts away money sign and pushes forward cooperation and discussion.
    90% used to be how other 7 points were managed in post wwii period.

  20. Jim Sinclair explains why Russia can do more economic damage to the USA than the USA can do to Russia. I don’t agree with his excessive gold bug stance but the petrodollar analysis and payment system analysis is basically sound IMO. If the USA pushes sanctions too hard it could get a BRIC up its *** that’s for sure.

    On the down side, the interviewer is a bit of a tedious idiot. It takes a long time for his mental light bulb to come on each time there is a point made. Sinclair ends up talking in circles too but I blame the interviewer for that.

  21. @Jordan

    But that’s what I am saying. There is no one silver bullet to all our problems now. I would agree in saying we should tax the super rich at 90%. That will help some problems. It won’t solve all our problems.

  22. Now the US puppets running Turkey have shot down a Syrian plane.

    Pure genius at work here.

    I’d be interested to hear whether anyone here cannot believe that the CIA has been behind the coups in Egypt, Venezuela (currently being attempted), Syria & Ukraine.

  23. @Ikonoclast
    That is excellent point by Sinclair, just accept other currencies for exports and USA will be trying to swallow such blunder. That is what i was saying few days ago about how power players do international trade and create colonial positions of other countries; doing trades only in their currencies, for importing and exporting. This creates dependency positions for countries that have to buy and sell in foreign currencies. They have to earn or borrow those currencies for trade, while power players can print as much as they need or want, and they do.

    About Circuitist point, i fully agree with you. Democracy requiers constant vigilance in order to keep it, there is no silver bullet. But there are couple of things that can drastically help democracy to work: high marginal tax and democracy at work.
    But without constant vigilance and participation even with such mechanisms, democracy can be subdued and controlled over longer period of time.

  24. Russia has only one weak point, it’s oligarchs. Are they going to stand with Putin or be allowed to be bribed by EU and USA? EU/USA knows about this and their actions with visa sanctions and finance sanctions against russia’s oligarch is pointing right there. EU is trying to stick and carrot oligarchs to raise against Putin.

  25. The real issue for Russia is that as Global Warming progresses Russia’s territory will come under imense pressure from southern populations particularly the middle east and China. There is an imense area of sparsely populated resource rich land above China who has the population available to fill it. Russia with this annexation in this 21st century has set a precedent for border adjustment as Climate Change renders other lands unlivable.

    I doubt that the rest of the world is going to go to Russia’s aid if China moves to takeshare Siberia.

  26. Germany has been decreasing both its gas and coal consumption while increasing its electricity exports. Germany exported a recored quantity of electricity in 2013. The country has demonstrated an ability to rapidly improve its energy independance and it is clear that if Germans decided to they could rapidly reduce their gas imports. Here is a link to an article on their fossil fuel use decline and record electricity exports:

  27. And it looks like Germany may be closing down a 1.345 gigawatt nuclear plant early when its current load of fuel runs out on account of how average wholesale electricity prices have fallen below the approximately 4 Euro cents a kilowatt-hour the plant apparently requires to make worthwhile to operate:

    Low wholesale electricity prices and the early closure of large scale generating capacity is of course not the sort of thing one would expect to see in a nation if it was on the brink of collasping from a lack of affordable energy.

  28. “in ukraine, new gov’t must reassure jewish community”: abraham h foxman in the new york times. he mentions svododa by name, as an organisation of concern, and deputy p.m. olexander sych, known for speeches promoting stepan bandera as an exemplary figure for ukrainian nationalists.

    foxman says, among other things, that right sector national head dmitry yarosh had a meeting in kiev with israel’s ambassador to ukraine, reuven din al. yarosh said his organisation rejects anti-semitism and xenophobia,and will not tolerate it, and their goals are a democratic ukraine, transparent gov’t, an end to corruption & equal opportunity for all ethnic groups. this dmitry yarosh was the guy who posted a message on his organisation’s website inviting chechen terrorist doku umarov to act against Russia; he said, i paraphrase, ukrainian nationalists fought with you against russia, so you should consider some action now against russia in support of ukraine. bad luck for doku umarov, who is reported to have been killed by chechen special forces last week.

    then there is the bad luck case of aleksandr muzychko, the head of the western ukraine branch of right sector. muzychko is famous recently for expressing himself in public declaring: “i’ll be fighting russians & jews till i die”. you may recall seeing muzychko on video, early on after the coup, barging into a provincial local gov’t assembly with his goons, brandishing his kalashnikov & 17 inch bowie knife, daring anyone to take them off him, all the while proclaiming a new broom in the country.

    so, well, right sector is now entering politics, for the first time, putting aside its scorn of svoboda’s political compromises & cleaning up its image to enter the electoral fray. dmitry yarosh has announced he is running for president in the election. and you may hear, in the upcoming news (or you may not), that last night aleksandr muzychko was killed outside a restaurant in a country town in western ukraine. police, executing warrants on charges of hooliganism & obstructing law enforcement agencies, are saying it was a shoot out and muzychko jumped through a window shooting from the hip, shooting after he was hit.

    however, ukrainian parliamentarian, aleksandr doniy, says on his website that muzychko’s car “was cut off by two other cars. He was dragged out and placed in one of those cars. Then he was thrown on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back and [he received] two shots in his heart”. wow! muzychko earlier on his website wrote that the ukrainian interior ministry had decided to “eliminate” him or capture him & hand him over to russian and blame it on russian intelligence. paranoid? -a.v.

  29. Yes, Oleksandr Muzychko is dead according to all reports. The Ukrainian neo-nazis have bitten off more than they can chew. They are brainless thugs and mere amateurs compared to Putin’s Chekist reach, influence and “opers” (operatives or agents). I expect important Ukrainian neo-nazis to start dying like flies soon. There will always be “plausible deniability” of Kremlin involvement.

    I expect Arsenii Yatseniuk will be seeking politcal asylum within twelve months as his power and legitimacy disintegrates.

  30. yup dead as a door nail. and pressure on the gov’t. it looks to me like an assasination. i have read a third version of the events, to wit: three volkswagan vans (two black, 1 white, pulled up to the restaurant, all the guests were forced outside, muzychko & his body guards were beaten and muzychko was taken out back and shot twice in the heart & the body was left where it fell. some of the guests have been taken hostage, three right sector, 2 others & the head of the local employment agency. police have not commented on this version, which appears in a couple of ukrainian websites and a newspaper, but this does not sound to me like a police operation: the hostages, the body left at the scene, the unmarked vans, the shooters without uniforms.

    i don’t know if the fascists are stupid but they are adapting themselves to the changed environment. now that the “gov’t of occupation” is overthrown and competition, in the form of the communist party & the party of regions, has been eliminated, there is more opportunity for nationalists in electoral politics. but if anyone in ukraine wants to be effective in affecting electoral politics & having an influence in parliament they have to be acceptable to the europeans. being acceptable to the europeans means no more overt official racism and, we’ll see in the fullness of time, no more extolling stepan bandera as an exemplary ukrainian nationalist. coming to grips with bandera may be more difficult than offing recalcitrant anti-semites in their midst.

    svoboda has always been involved in electoral politics, but now they too are tempering their racism to get eu approval. the same with right sector, which has declared its intention of entering electoral politics. and, to be viable in electoral politics, they have to reassure the europeans and to reassure the europeans they have to curb their overt anti-semitism. this was the point of the meeting with the israeli ambassador, and the statement made by dmitry yarosh at the israeli embassy, that right sector does not now tolerate anti-semitism. this is, i think, why muzychko was liquidated, because, together with his high profile, his stubborn unreconstructed racism & anti-semitism had became a liability to the right sector leadership as it seeks to reposition itself in ukrainian electoral politics.

    so i don’t think its stupidity, i think its ruthless adaptation. the question in my mind now is how does the right sector membership react to muzychko’s assassination, especially in the western heartland, where he was their elected leader. it reminds me most of the purging of rohm’s brown shirt faction in the nazi party, in the sense that an internal party faction head has been ruthlessly eliminated sending a signal to the membership, not in the sense that the nazi’s were working to improve their image with electors. -a.v.

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